Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong’s young need to log off, go out, get a job – and grow up

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer

Peter Kammerer says a lack of good jobs and high living costs mean more young adults live at home, faces buried in a screen, with little desire to change

Hong Kong’s annual Ani-Com and Games fair attracts manga and cosplay fans, many of whom are young. Photo: Sam Tsang

One item on my bucket list is somewhat embarrassing. I have long wanted to go to Comic-Con in San Diego, the pop culture extravaganza held each July that features everything related to comic books, science fiction and all in-between. But it’s not so much that I’m a Star Trek nerd or Harry Potter fan. More, it’s the desire to see those in their 20s and older who are living in a fantasy world and haven’t yet moved out of their parents’ home.

There are more such people out there than you would think. I encounter them all the time on public transport, their faces buried in a screen. As a rule, they are young adults; the self-same people encountered at the annual Ani-Com and Games Hong Kong leafing excitedly through manga or taking part in cosplay contests. If I was of a less charitable nature, I would give them a stern rebuke and ask them when they think they will be ready to grow up.

This is an important matter with singles day on the mainland and in other places on Wednesday; it’s a time for those eager for a relationship that may lead to marriage and a family to consider why they aren’t having much luck. Could it possibly have something to do with their paying so much attention to the online world that they forget about how to act in the one they face each time they walk out the front door?

In Hong Kong, as elsewhere, it is increasingly difficult to determine when someone has become an adult. Laws determine that it is 18, but traditions and economics also mean that many are still living under their parents’ roof into their 30s. Even if they wanted to move out, they couldn’t: high housing costs and the inability to get a job that pays well eliminates the possibility of living independently.

Consequently, a generation is growing up that is trapped between childhood and adulthood. Some young people are frustrated at not being able to move to the next stage of life, while others, ensconced in a comforting home environment, have little or no desire to change. The median age at which Hongkongers marry for the first time is about 30.

A host of terms have arisen for this global trend, which is especially prevalent in places with high unemployment rates among the young. American social scientist Diane Singerman coined one in 2007, “waithood”, to describe the period of limbo preceding marriage in which young adults are in the prime of their life, yet feel helpless and are dependent on others. Long periods of waiting can lead to a loss of ambition or desire to move out: in Japan, such young people are called freeters , in the English-speaking world slackers, spongers and basement dwellers, while Italians call them bamboccioni , essentially mummies’ boys. Hong Kong has no specific word, the closest being a four-character expression that translates as idlers – although this applies to all people without work.

My eldest son, 24 and still living at home, technically does not fit the mould as he has a job and a good income. But he does not feel as if he is a fully fledged adult, believing that will come only with his own home, marriage and the responsibility of children. That was essentially the conclusion of a recent survey of 2,000 young Britons by the online insurer Beagle Street. They did not think of themselves as adults until 29 due to living at home longer and a reluctance to settle for a “real” job. For 68 per cent, becoming adult was defined as moving into their own home, for 63 per cent becoming a parent and for 52 per cent, marriage.

Getting a steady income is crucial to having a positive mindset. But that can’t be found messing around with games and social media. Here’s a starting point: turn that screen off and go and meet some people in person. You may find a contact for a job, an employer and even romance.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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On life support: Doctors’ pay a ticking time bomb for Hong Kong’s ailing public health system

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Albert Cheng

Albert Cheng says unless the government injects more funding, and salaries are pegged to the civil service, the recent rise has simply stalled more inevitable protests

The Hospital Authority last month averted a crisis with its senior doctors by granting them an additional three per cent salary rise out of its own pocket. However, that offer does not mean the two sides are no longer set on a collision course.

The treasury allocated HK$49 billion to the authority in the current budget to cover staff remuneration and annual adjustments. However, the doctors were angry when management decided not to match pay hikes for senior civil servants.

The civil service has been conducting reviews to see whether its employees’ packages are in line with the private sector. Based on its 2013 pay-level survey report, the government gave senior officials an additional three per cent. Such pay adjustments, every six years, are on top of any annual rises.

The Hospital Authority had insisted it was not obliged to follow the government but caved in after some 1,300 doctors staged a sit-in on its doorstep. The extra rise will cost it an additional HK$200 million a year, which, given the authority’s current balance sheet, hardly seems sustainable.

The government is adamant it will not foot the bill. So, in the long run, the authority would have to reduce other expenses to bridge the funding gap. That would inevitably hit services. We cannot let this happen; the government must absorb the extra cost.

Established in 1990, the authority has had at least three major run-ins over pay with disgruntled medical staff over the past 25 years.

Public-sector doctors can be divided into three broad categories. The department of medical and health was split into two divisions in 1989 to pave the way for the Hospital Authority’s takeover of all public hospitals. Some doctors under the then hospital services department migrated to the authority on existing civil service terms. Others took up cash and retirement incentives to give up their civil servant status. The third group was recruited after a new system was introduced in 1999. It is these doctors who have been treated most unfairly.

In theory, the authority’s remuneration system is separate from that of the government. There is, however, an unspoken consensus between the authority and its employees that terms and conditions should be in line with civil servants’.

In 2000, the authority followed the government to slash the salaries of newcomers. It also sought to reform doctors’ pay structure by reducing the three grades of public sector doctors to two. As a result, doctors doing the same jobs might be paid differently. But management back-pedalled after 5,000 doctors protested at its headquarters.

There was another stand-off in 2007, after the government restored the starting point for civil servants to the 2000 level. The authority failed to convince its staff of a similar plan. Some 1,300 doctors mounted a sit-in at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, pushing the authority into making concessions.

Eight years later, the doctors took action once more. This time bomb will continue to tick until the government agrees to re-peg public hospitals’ pay adjustments to those of the general civil service.

As an increasing number of disgruntled public doctors move to the private sector, public hospitals’ standards will decline. The recent list of medical incidents and mishaps is hardly accidental.

Two immediate steps should be taken to restore doctors’ morale and confidence, to stem the exodus. First, their pay adjustments should at least be on a par with civil servants’. Their promotion prospects should be improved and incentives introduced to retain the best. Second, more overseas practitioners should be allowed in, as long as locals’ interests are not compromised.

Our public medical service is on a slippery slope; it may only be a matter of time before we are faced with third-world standards.

The government does not have a comprehensive plan to tackle these issues. Its primary concern is to cut costs. We cannot afford our public medical system to become another failure of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

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Crowd funding in Hong Kong not likely any time soon

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Stephen Vines

The prospects for delay are endless

Online crowd funding has taken a big step forward in the United States as regulators have decided to allow a far greater number of Americans to invest in what are mainly start-up companies looking for capital.

In many ways crowd funding has been an enormous success not only in providing capital for struggling entrepreneurs but also for people in the creative industries and non-profit organisations. The World Bank estimates that this form of investment could reach US$96 billion by the end of the decade. If this is only partially correct it means an enormous funding expansion.

However the thrill of contributing to, say, the production of a new movie, is rather different from the incentive to be part of a new business that, at least in theory, is more likely to produce solid financial returns.

The new US regulations reflect a level of caution to protect investors’ interests. Thus, for example, annual fund raising is capped at $1 million and investments have to be channelled through a Securities and Exchange Commission registered intermediary. It is not hard to see why some caution is required here, nor should there be any surprise when we start hearing more and more stories of online crowd funding abuse.

We know this will happen because in essence crowd funding is hardly a new concept, on the contrary today’s developments are highly reminiscent of the pioneering days of stock markets which were populated by large numbers of small investors furnishing cash for start-up companies and providing financial backing for new ideas.

The so-called railway mania that gripped Victorian British investors was but one manifestation of the enormous popularity and risks in infant stock exchanges that channelled widespread public enthusiasm for new products into hard cash transactions. And then came the scams…

It should be pointed out that earlier versions of crowd funding for the arts also shows that this is less than a novel idea. Public subscriptions helped put on plays, funded books and so on hundreds of years before a click of a computer mouse made diverse funding schemes a whole lot easier.

What has not changed is the basic concept of harnessing public enthusiasm for new concepts and projects. The risks of equity investments in start-ups are there for all to see, so there is no cause for complaint if the outcome is a high failure rate. More complex is the matter of handling success. At this point there are spoils to be distributed and issues of control to be addressed.

The experience of stock markets clearly demonstrates that success breeds a growing detachment form the modest investors who helped provide the seed money. Control rapidly moves in the direction of bigger investors and the professional managers.

This is unavoidable but, as history proves, it generates an ever more complex demands for accountability and transparency that are far more easily managed among a relatively small group of people, preferably without the presence of lawyers. But it is in the nature of successful companies to grow and when they do the big guys are less attentive to their small investors.

In Asia, not least in Hong Kong, most public companies are tightly controlled by their founding families and only go public when these families wish to realise some of the accumulated value of their investments but less keen to cede any of the control they previously wielded.

This all seems rather far removed from the modest world of crowd funding, yet its antecedents in stock markets are much the same so it is reasonable to assume that the outcomes will not be that much different.

Meanwhile it is important not to loose sight of the excitement and creativity of crowd funding because not only does it fill an important gap in the provision of risk capital but it also provides entrepreneurial opportunities for people not able to be entrepreneurs themselves but with inclinations in this direction. This is healthy for society as a whole and should not be hampered by excessive regulation.

Hong Kong has yet to establish specific crowd funding regulations but on-line platforms are controlled by more general securities and money lending laws that have the affect of limiting the growth of this business.

In the last budget speech the Financial Secretary made passing reference to addressing this issue but as ever, the local bureaucracy is very slow to embrace innovations of this kind so don’t expect anything to happen soon.

Yet if the government is really serious about creating what it fancifully calls a financial technology hub, crowd funding should be an important component. Stand by for committees to be established to study this matter; the usual suspects who belong to all other government committees will undoubtedly be called upon again to do their worst. The prospects for delay are endless.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster

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Unhealthy obsession with technology, even in the gym, leaves us with no energy to form real friendships

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang says our dependence on gadgets is affecting our ability to form meaningful friendships, leading to loneliness – and websites where people can now rent a friend

After eight blissful years away from the gym, I recently broke down and rejoined. I’m not a gym person by nature. My idea of a good workout is a hike in the woods.

However, my aunt recently got osteoporosis in her knee and watching her go through that reminded me of the importance of strength training and doing weight-bearing exercises so, somewhat reluctantly, I signed up.

Eight years is a long time to not be in any game, especially the gym game. In the time I’ve been gone, gyms have become ridiculously posh. They now come with free T-shirts, shorts, socks, fruit, water, Wi-fi and a range of charging options for your gadgets. Left your gadget at home? No problem – they’ll lend you an iPod. Seeing all this, I seriously considered giving up my apartment and moving in to the gym.

As I began my workout, I quickly realised what else was different compared with eight years ago: everyone was glued to their phones. Leg press machines were mere lounge chairs for texting, flat benches convenient bases for Snapchatting. On the ab machine, I saw very little crunching – only Facebooking.

It got to the point where I almost couldn’t exercise. As I sat waiting for everyone to finish taking selfies so that I could actually use the machines, I started watching the many personal trainers around me with their clients. Eight years ago, personal trainers were a rarity. Now, they’re practically a prerequisite for joining the gym. I took this to be a sign of their superior skill and effectiveness when it comes to exercise, but, to my surprise, a lot of the people with personal trainers weren’t working out either.

Instead, they were just standing there chatting – talking about their date and the latest movie they saw. I couldn’t understand it. Personal trainers are expensive. Why spend HK$600 an hour just to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones?

It dawned on me that perhaps we’ve become so dependent on all this technology, so used to communicating via a screen, that we no longer have the time, patience or energy for real friendships. And now, when we feel the urge to talk to a real human being, live, maybe it’s easier to book a person rather than track down a real friend. Is that where the future is heading?

A new website, seems to think so. It allows you to do just that – rent a friend. According to the website, there are more than 526,000 such “friends” from all around the world for hire, including many here in Hong Kong. For HK$80 per hour, you can rent these people to hang out with, watch a movie or go shopping with you.

Such websites are capitalising on the surge of loneliness in recent years. According to Time Magazine, loneliness may be the next big public health issue. A new study by Brigham Young University in the US found that loneliness increased the chance of early death by 30 per cent. That’s on a par with obesity.

Whether or not we can solve the loneliness problem with technology remains to be seen, when arguably it is that very technology that is causing the problem. I remain sceptical.

Five frustrating gym sessions later, I decided to ditch the clean towels for some clean(ish) air: I went on a hike. However, just as I was about to set off, a fellow hiker came up from behind. He was an elderly man carrying a radio which was blasting out 1990s music. For the next 90 minutes or so, we hiked the trail together and I had to listen to Celine Dion belting out her greatest hits. It was annoying as heck, albeit a different kind of annoying – a more familiar one.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

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Age of reason: Hong Kong is far from being run by old men, despite what student activist Joshua Wong might think

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

John Chan

John Chan says a minimum age requirement to stand for election to the Legislative Council doesn’t prove Scholarism convenor’s claim that the city is a gerontocracy

In Hong Kong, the term “old men’s politics” or gerontocracy was first widely talked about in 1989 when hundreds of thousands of students gathered in Tiananmen Square demanding an end to bureaucratic corruption and the start of political reform.

In 1989, China was run by premier Li Peng , then aged 60, and party general secretary Zhao Ziyang , then aged 69. The fate of the country, however, was in the hands of the “eight patriarchs”, namely Deng Xiaoping , Chen Yun , Peng Zhen , Yang Shangkun , Bo Yibo , Li Xiannian, Deng Yingchao and Wang Zhen , who were all aged 80 or over at the time.

China has since put in place mandatory retirement for Politburo members when they reach the age of 68, while for grass-roots cadres, retirement is set and strictly enforced at 60 with some sectors as early as 55. Nowadays, no one can say China is practising “old men’s politics”.

The term came to the public’s attention again recently in Hong Kong, when student activist and Scholarism convenor Joshua Wong Chi-fung filed a judicial review on his 19th birthday challenging the minimum age requirement of 21 to stand for Legislative Council elections.

Wong claims the age threshold is contrary to the Bill of Rights Ordinance and the Basic Law. He claimed gerontocracy was serious in Hong Kong, citing that the average age of Legco members is 57, with one aged 70 still occupying an important position.

Wong’s move has been widely criticised as an attempt to change the threshold for his own needs. While Wong’s arguments have been challenged by some scholars and politicians, his claim of “old men’s politics” in Hong Kong appears simplistic and overexaggerated.

Gerontocracy is often used to describe a country with a wide gap between the median age of the population and the average age of its leaders.

According to Hong Kong government figures, our median age in 2014 was 42.8. This compares with the average age of 57 in Legco. In the US, the median age in 2014 was 37.6, compared with an average of 57 in the House and 63 in the Senate when the 111th Congress took office in 2009 (the 112th Congress is slightly younger on average). Thus, from this perspective, Hong Kong doesn’t fare too badly.

Some people claim that the wider the gap between the median age of the population and the average age of the country’s leaders, the more likely it is that society will be politically unstable, as ageing leaders are unable to address the needs and aspirations of youngsters. Stable democracies, by contrast, seem to have more youthful leaders.

Take Egypt before the jasmine revolution as an example; the median age was 24, while autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was 82 before he was toppled. Similarly, there was a wide gap between the median age of the population and the average age of the eight patriarchs during the turbulent time in China in 1989.

In any talk about generational conflict, age is always a sensitive issue. In many US states, adolescents of 14 can drive but have to wait until they are 18 to vote; they can marry at 16 with parental consent, while they have to wait until they are 21 to buy a drink in a bar. Thus it would seem rather odd if a young man aged 18 or 19 could sit in Congress to decide how old a person should be before they can consume alcohol while he himself could not even enter a bar without his parents.

Similarly, some people in Hong Kong may find it hard to swallow if a 19-year-old student who has never paid income tax in his life, and is pursuing an education that is subsidised by taxpayers, sits in Legco to decide how much tax people should pay.

Just what age is considered “old” is always a matter of judgment. Yet, as grown-ups, when we say to young people, “You are too young for this”, I think that, most of the time, we have a valid point.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party